In this week’s Torah portion, we read the story of Noah and his ark as well as the story of the Tower of Babel. In the Babel story, everyone on earth had the same language. They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks… and build a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.” G-d, seeing this hubris, decides to confound their speech and scatter them over the face of the earth.
The story probably once served to simply explain why people speak many different languages, but as with all biblical stories, there is a deeper truth hidden within. The Italian Torah commentator, scientist, and philosopher Obadaiah Sforno (1475-1550) believed that the tower builders wanted everyone to be the same – one religion, one point of view on the world, one political way of doing things. According to Sforno, differences of opinion were not tolerated. This, he believed, was their great sin. Sforno believed that when G-d saw that the tower builders were attempting to crush people’s freedom of thought and discussion, it became necessary to scatter the builders throughout the world and to confound their speech. In doing so, G-d emphasized their differences.
Our differences are what make us human, and as such we are like the rainbow that we saw earlier in the parsha in the Noah story. If you mix the colors all together, you get something indistinct and not particularly beautiful. It is in the contrast where the beauty lies. When we humans can dwell together like the colors of the rainbow, then we truly become a tower to the heavens – full of all of the potential in the world. But when we try to become all the same, we can only remain scattered and babbling.
Cantor Sally Neff